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Sunday, January 20, 2019

MURDER MY SWEET

Image may contain: 2 peopleWatched "Murder My Sweet" (1944) on TCM last night, starring Dick Powell and directed with artful craft by Edward Dmytryk. This is an inspired and fairly taut adaptation of Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely", and Powell, who we usually think of as a song-and-dance man, makes for an engaging Philip Marlowe, a cynical private eye, not-so-tough, wisecracking and whiskey drinking, a man who, once hired for a job, goes to the cruel truth at the heart of all the enterprises he finds himself embroiled in. Marlowe is a knight errant, in many ways, bound by a personal code me manages not to compromise in a city that is dark, full of sharp black corners and a population ruled by Bad Faith. Everyone lies to Marlowe, and they lie about everything--in this word, everyone has secrets they want to keep hidden, but coming up against Marlowe the protagonist, with his skewed virtue, hard truths and foul intents are revealed. Beautiful black and white here, a solid, even essential example of the film-noir style. The angles of the camera shots, the hard corners, the mastery of b&w and the various, shaded tones in between the extremes are nothing less than sculptural. Co-stars Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley are well chosen to enact the High Society citizens of dubious intent, but it's actor Mike Mazurki, a recognizable character from the period, who makes an impression as Moose Malloy, a man-mountain of a thug just released from an eight years prison stretch who hires the detective Marlowe to find his one true love, Velma. She was the one thing that touched the soft spot in this dim- monster's heart-of-hearts and, true to what he knows, is willing to break as many legs and backs necessary to find his Velma and get that feeling back. Powell has everything needed for a perfect Marlowe, cynicism, fast wit, a sentimental streak that gets him knocked over the head, and an understated dedication to trusting his evolving sense of situational ethics.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

LeRoi Jones: life against death


Amiri Baraka, nee  LeRoi Jones, is a primary influence in my decision to be a poet; his earlier works were an odd and rhythmic mix of black speech, violent surrealism and slow-burning rage that would erupt, sure enough, into a vicious pyrotechnical beauty. It was the perfect voice for a white kid living in Detroit who was growing up surrounded by Motown, free-jazz saxophone improvisation and the MC5. Something more severe and actual had to supplant to Dylan's scintillating but apolitical surrealism or the  West Coast counter culture's belief in a spontaneous Utopia. Jones could set dual-isms against each other, reveal the clashes of political hegemony and emasculation, reach into the tradition of blues and jazz and reveal the music and the accompanying vernacular as idioms, political and spiritual, that black Americans needed to love and harness as  an expression of what made them uniquely American and permanently Other.

His vision was the surface of the barriers black men came up against, social and psychic, his poetry was the conversion of his anger into a stylized voice that could improvise perception and strip away cracking veneers on institutionalized lies. He had his problems, yes, but he was an impressive force, a majestic presence of the lyric and the abrasive. Anomie was the key element here that got me, the crushing self-consciousness that one's life measures up to exactly nothing and that suicide were a perfectly sane answer. Jones, always angry, was indebted to Franz Fanon's text The Wretched of the Earth, arguing (in a cramped nutshell) about the psychological effects of the colonization of their cultures. Fanon didn't argue for suicide as a solution but rather supported liberation movements across the globe to overturn the oppression. Jones is taken with the notion of one being made to feel listless and without worth sans real evidence--the source of the decrepit psychology comes from without, not within, he would later argue--and here isolates the malaise in snapshots, images, everyday activities that become brittle and poorly constructed. He feels enfeebled, quite unable to change his circumstances. Jones would evolve into Amiri Baraka as he broke with the Beats and embraced various forms of Black Nationalism, writing poems and plays and essays that were deliberately problematic for white critics--he refused to be defined and contained by a white culture's linguistic agenda. But he did write some brutally beautiful and stark poems early on, and this is one of them.

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
(For Kellie Jones, Born 16 May 1959)
By LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)


Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelops me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad-edged silly music the win
Makes when I run for the bus...

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars,
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night, I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there...
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands.
Nicely phrased here, a wonderful inversion of a horrible cliche: And now, each night I count the stars,/ And each night I get the same number/And when they will not come to be counted,/I count the holes they leave.  What would make us normally expect the poet to finally declare his awe at the thought that the infinitude of the cosmos makes his woes trivial in perspective, Jones' narrator counts only what's missing. The stars are not far-flung suns with their own solar systems and probably life forms on many of them. The light is instead of being an invading illumination seeping through pinpricks in a tarp that covers this man's sense of himself in the world. Everywhere he looks he sees only more things missing. We read this and marvel at Jones' skill at bringing a lyric beauty from such an accumulated woe, but we remember as we read on that the white culture's tradition of depressed and suicidal romanticism was soon to be renounced by the emergent persona form of Amiri Barka, who would deny the death culture and turn his despair into a motivating anger. Think about how you will, but he is a poet who acted to get out his funk, to counteract the thinking that was killing him.



Friday, January 18, 2019

GILLETTE SLICES INTO TOXIC MASCULINITY

Gillette, makers of razors supreme for the delicate male face, has released an add that amounts to a short, punchy lecture in responsibility to its customers in this age of MeToo and TimesUp, declaring that its time for the normative men in the audience to help end the scourge of toxic masculinity.  Essentially, it powerfully argues through some well-crafted images that men need to step up and say something, do something, intervene if need be and not allow other men to harass, bully, intimidate, assault women specifically and everyone else on the planet in general. Predictably, this video went viral and broke  the internet and brought all social media to a standstill while alt-right warriors moaned, groaned and whined that their favorite hobbies are being laid bare and revealed to be the go-to moves of parts of the male population who define their sense of place in the world by how thick they can create fear and terror among the weakest members of the population. Turns out those folks are not so weak, having served a well-placed succession of knees to the nuts to the emotionally arrested oafs, thugs, and goons that make up the ranks of so-called Real Men. 

The ad is beautifully done and serves the purpose of forcing the matter of toxic assholism, bullying and such into an open and heated discussion, debate, argument; the point is that those who have been traditionally embattled by the ranker sort of white males, rich, middle earner or jobless nobody, are going to punch back, pushback, talkback from this point on. The crybabies on hard right social media and the assorted propaganda mills who routinely shame, belittle and defame women, blacks, immigrants, liberals, progressives and members of the LGBT communities are going to find that the old tactics aren't going to work this time, if ever again. It sticks in their craw and they can't swallow it whole, partially, or in the smallest slices. Steven Colbert jokingly frets that we have a less than a reliable sense of right and wrong if it takes a maker of razor blades to carry a persuasive moral message to the rest of us. Perhaps, but I applaud Gillette to that degree. It's my hope that carries through to all sectors of the culture, visible and invisible. The message would be that if you're going to be a toxic, bullying, abusive, racist/homophobic/misogynistic half-brained cretin in a civil society, you will be called out, you will be hauled off for crimes you've committed, you will be named, shamed and made an example of. Learn that and learn it quickly.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

MC5 - I'm Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver (Live, 1968)

There was a gasping blowhard on a blog who in the course of a debate as to which country, America or Britain, had produced the largest number of Great Rock Bands uttered these phrases that still have me gritting my teeth these seven years later, formulating a ready response: American bands with VERY few exceptions SUCK! The best I could come up was this: Do you mean all American bands, ever, from any time in rock and roll history? You don’t believe that since American bands and solo artists are the architects of rock and roll, and that without them, the British bands you love would not exist, at least not in the form that makes you go gaga and loopy, like and roll ought to do. I refuse to believe that any art that I love stems from, or was influenced, or made possible by anything that ‘sucks. Since American bands influenced a good many great British bands, American bands, by and large, do not suck. Great musicians tend to be influenced by other great musicians. I think you understand that. For the track record in the post-British invasion phase, I insist that it’s about even, America ahead by a neck. But here, we can have a reasonable disagreement.

The fact of the matter is that the history of British rock and roll is a reworking of traditions that are not native to your shores. You've produced great music and extensions of established styles, but rock and rolls' bleeding edge comes from America, finally: that seems to be the only advantage to being as gummed-up as we are--there is a tension in the musical culture that remains constant and vital that you Brits, historically, have only refined into an aesthetically arguable style. Britain has gotten all the credit for punk rock, and even that’s not their own invention: The MC-5, Iggy and the Stooges, The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls were playing years before Malcolm McLaren placed his want-ad for future Sex Pistols. But what of it all? It goes back and forth, and it’s unlikely that either shore would have made as interesting music had we not been exposed to the music the other was making. Every note that gets played comes back to us changed, modified, altered to suit another players' purpose relevant to his experience.

The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks crushes one’s skull and destroys one’s notions of pop decorum just fine, but it does sound like Kick Out the Jams sixteen years later. The psychodrama tic of marginal bands who are locked out of the star-making machinery is, like it or not, is a long and rich tradition in America with the likes of Alice Cooper, another Detroit boy who sold several million albums with the proto-grunge rock sometime before the Pistols had half a wit about themselves. One cannot take black music from the equation; to do so is racist and foul and evidence of bed wetting. Rock and roll is black music at its heart and base, and we'd be dishonest to exclude the matter. It does, after all, come from Chuck Berry. Ask Keith Richard. Chrissie Hynde still sounds American to me, and still sounds like Akron, Ohio. Iggy Pop and Ted Nugent hail from the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, and the geographic/temporal coincidences certainly didn't cause either to sound like the other. In turn, why should Hynde sound like Devo? Any hoot, she kicks it major ways, she is awesome, a goddess. And obnoxious? I only must buy her records, not buy her dinner.

For BB King and other blues artists, it’s still another case of Brits admitting that the music they're making is based on someone else’s work. We cannot seem to get around that. Eldridge Cleaver is as fallible a cultural critic as anyone you can name, and his comment about the Beatles was intended to appeal to white radicals who were buying his books. It was a nice for him to assure his audience that he wasn't a complete monster: say something nice about something they love. Proper credit for a white man making black music acceptable to white teens, though, properly goes to Elvis Presley. Anyone of our blessed Brits would cite the El as their first exposure to black music, along with millions of white American teens, was through him. The Beatles essentially were needed links in an ongoing chain of influences. But Elvis was the groundbreaker. Period. Any other statement is not accurate, Eldridge Cleaver to the contrary.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Mailer meets McLuhan, 1968



This is a fine discussion, I think, between two of the most interesting public intellectuals of the 1960s/70s. Different approaches toward making the dire situation better, though I think both find common ground in the way each has diagnosed what's killing society and culture. McLuhan has the temperament, I think, of a social engineer, suggesting that once we appreciate the way media and technology change the perception of the environment or creates the environment in fact, the world would then evolve into his global village. Mailer is more the artist sort, a thinking man's Hemingway, Paul Tillich with a good right hook; he has scant hope in technology, which is controlled by corporations,to improve the lot of humanity over any any amount of time, and sees the necessity of individuals saving themselves by radically breaking with the enforced mediocrity set upon then and placing themselves in situations that would challenge them, cause them to grow, wake up, evolve . I would say, as well, that Mailer flounders a bit, grasping at straws, not fully grasping McLuhan's theories on how the accelerated advances and implementation of digital technology into our everyday lives profoundly changes the way humanity comes to comprehend reality.

 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

EMILY, THE PHILOSOPHER OF CLOSED SPACE

Image result for EMILY DICKINSON
An Emily Dickinson poem, No.443, has the cloistered poet speaking elliptically, mysteriously about her duty to her small labors and benign daily obligations in the wake of a personal catastrophe; her resolve to stick to her routine with an even greater conviction is an extraordinary will to power. Rather than surrender to grief and a long, tedious death knell, she confirms her existence by tending to the world that is left to her. It’s less than she is chained to her routine that she is liberated by them, elevated even. It’s a way to be engaged with things not related to matters of personal misfortune; through the tasks, small and inconsequential as they seem, are a boon to her. There are sound echoes of Samuel Beckett in this arresting poem, the similarities between a shared theme that we are creatures of habit, routine and appetite, that the motions we go through are the irreducible fact of our human condition. A Beckett reader from years back was called I Can’t Go On, I Go On, and bitter-sweetly so, as it is a phrase that summarizes the dry, splintered core of the Irish writer’s worldview. Without the compelling vision, let us say delusion of an overriding ideology, whether religion, political, economic, aesthetic, life is really little else but an eternal return to repetitive functionality. Even in disillusion, Beckett’s characters do not transcend, they do not change, they go back to what disgusts them and lose themselves in reveries of a past that seems to be only something they’ve read; the redundant tasking is the only anchor in the present time. Dickinson, though, was aware of the sheer repetition of her daily tasks and took them to be the things that make this life purposeful and with a shred of meaning, small and banal her small chores might be. It is the doing of the tasks, the chores, the run of things it takes to keep her household in order, that creates purpose — the well-worn existentialist notion that one accepts the consequences of one’s action through a form of creative commitment to the results — and it is in those moments, giving oneself over to a string of small matters that require daily attention, that she is engaged and for a moment outside herself, in service to something greater than herself.

The time ‘twill be till six o’clockI have so much to do —And yet — Existence — some way back —Stopped — struck — my ticking — through —We cannot put Ourself awayAs a completed ManOr Woman — When the Errand’s doneWe came to Flesh — upon —There may be — Miles on Miles of Nought —Of Action — sicker far —To simulate — is stinging work —To cover what we areFrom Science — and from Surgery —Too Telescopic EyesTo bear on us unshaded —For their — sake — not for Ours —

It is at that moment when matters are concluded for the day that our psychic bearing ebbs and we are returned again to the trembling , merely mortal flesh that trembles from the ceaseless self-awareness that one is alone and not the recipient of glory or attending serenity from on high; the mind chatters to itself, contemplating the stark uselessness of things; the more we find out about ourselves from the sciences, the lesser we seem in the grand scheme of an unknown god’s cosmos. Dickinson, the philosopher of the closed space, the metaphysician of precision, refuses to think of herself as lesser in comparison with the vast and unnervingly incomprehensible existence that lay far outside the walls of her Amherst home — this life of hers, these things in that life, were no less consequential as the rage for big ideas and larger, more complex constructions; her life was a matter of fact, of record, and it was for her to tend her minuscule bit of the world and finds with her dutiful attendance elements that link her with the larger chain of American endeavor, a culture and economy that’s locked itself in the present tense, defining itself with the tasks they undertake, the ones they finish, the new ones they begin. There is the question if Dickinson is speaking of herself alone or instead turns the person into a general worldview, as in the way she skillfully switches from the first person to plural in her narration. I think that Dickinson’s subject is herself alone and that the I and we of her poems — when both occur — are interchangeable; it’s not an uncommon trait that those who prefer their own counsel and company would refer to themselves in the third person. Caesar did it with powerful effect in his De Bello Gallico, Henry Adams revived the technique in his Education of Henry Adams, and Norman Mailer exploited the style wonderfully until he wore it out in an intriguing series of autobiographical testaments. It’s a wonderful device, as it allows one the distance to address speak of themselves with more intimacy and less modesty than a first-person narration might. It can also be a convenient way to ease the reader into a writer’s point of view by treating oneself as if he or she were a fictional character; it eases the sting of obnoxiousness, provided there’s an attractive style. Dickinson, though, wasn’t concerned with an audience and seemed, in my reading, to switch to a Victorian plural to dig a little deeper, prod her memory a little harder. It was a technique with which she could crystalize her contradictory responses to her still universe. Nothing went unnoticed, everything was framed in the narrative distance, amazing things from the minute domain were revealed.

Where Beckett offers us a body of literature that informs us that the condition of humankind is a prison house of rote tasks performed without variation by a species that’s been harassed and hazed to a devitalized race of doddering amnesiacs, Dickinson is of heartier stock, a chronically depressed Irish cynic contrasted against a Yankee that will not lay down and die and which embraces Life however insignificant it might seem. Some junior high school existentialism creeps into this cursory discussion: The central issue comes down to the essential existential paradox, from either the spiritual or atheistic; one is never not free, regardless of circumstances or forces that one finds themselves subject to. There is always a choice that can be made in even confined and restricted circumstance that cannot be taken away. Sartre, from whom I first gleaned the idea, exaggerated in his emphasis in his attempt to undercut determinist currents thought to rule human behavior — religion, economics, biology — and insist that man is ethically bound to make his creative choices and accept responsibility for the results and consequences. He sounds a bit like the lunk-headed Ayn Rand represented this simply, and there are far subtler aspects of his thought as you know, but the point here might be that Dickinson saw her closed in circumstances in the aftermath of her catastrophe but instead as the time to reconsider and reclaim a life that is hers and which has only the meaning and purpose she brings to it. It was her way, I read, of refusing to languish on a past she might be chained to, and to free her, as well, from the anxiety of a shadow future. She frees herself by giving herself over to her present circumstances, attentive, aware, alive, small as that life might be. Small, yes, but her life, uniquely Emily Dickinson’s. Hers was the examined the life, and it was worth living.




Sunday, December 16, 2018

CONSIDER THIS 4

Fiction does not need theory in order to be written. First, the fiction is written, the artistic moments, and the theory, or theories, arises as a consequence of critical reading. Theory is a coherent statement of known and verified material facts, in this case, works of fiction, and the formation of theory, if it's to be interesting, comes after the appearance of a primary source.  Critics and erstwhile gutter- snipers of ill reputation seek to have a theory on the same level as fiction, literature, but in terms of actual practice, theory is a secondary activity, a delayed reaction to fiction, not a simultaneous occurrence. Changing tastes and fashions have more to do with novels falling off the radar, not an absence of theory. And a philosophy without a theory, to begin with, is not a philosophy at all, only the same said more fashionable chatter. For real philosophies that get dropped into our dirty bin, it's most likely that their systems and suppositions have been supplanted, discredited and sufficiently critiqued into submission, which is just the happenstance of intellectual shelf life. All bad writing comes from writers who are writing badly, even normally good writers who've undertaken bad projects. There are many tangible reasons for bad writing, not the least of which is the plain truth that the world is full of bad writers who manage to get their scams published. Modernism cannot get "less modern", I think, because the modernism seems, in itself, only a tidying up of Romantic impulses before it, as postmodernism seems only a refinement, an updating of some essentially modernist tropes and stylistics. Each age takes the conventional set of dreads and sagas and makes their contours conform to the constructed world of the current moment. What counts is the individual talent that becomes the substance worth talking about.



Friday, December 14, 2018

CONSIDER THIS 3

Greatest American novel is a subject that exists alongside such topics YouTube topics who the fastest guitarist is, or the fanboy delights of slinging invective at each in the course of ruminating on the image of Superman v The Hulk. The fun in all that is that it inspires everyone to put on their Expert Pants and invent conditions, causes and criteria for their favorite --guitarist, Super Hero, novel--and use them as bludgeons against a legion of other equally engorged enthusiasts who, in turn, have their individual favorite and wield rhetoric devices no less bludgeoning. Even Norman Mailer, who was honest enough to admit that he actually wanted to write something called the Great American Novel admitted, after decades of brilliant books, that such a thing, a single entity, does not and cannot exist. The American Experience, or any historically collected National Experience, is too complex and changing too fast for one set of qualifications to set permanently. The greatest American novel, I think, will only be decided, finally, when we are extinct and someone else, something else assumes the job of figuring out who we were, what we did, and what of that is worth a damn thing.

CONSIDER THIS 2

Related imageOne of those questions came my way, as in a friend asked me which mystery writer would I prefer to read, Robert Parker or Dick Francis. Honestly, I don't care for either, mostly because I generally don't read mystery novels. Crime fiction is another matter; in the case of classic writers of pulp fiction, the likes of Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, James Crumley, and more recent artists like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, the writer is crisper, snappier, the characterization of heroes, so-called, and the bad guys rich. That is to remark that the psychology, the worldview of the dank environment of criminal enterprise and the ethics therein, are sufficiently complex and twisted. At its best, crime fiction is a condensed form of the Tragedy: flawed heroes and crooks who upset the balance of the universe that contains will inevitably and irrevocably be taken out of commision. Ironic conclusions to one's career are not often a reward. To answer my friend's question, who would I read, I would select Robert Parker, in as much as he attempts to emulate a class act, Raymond Chandler. Dick Francis , I find, is unengaging. I had no interest in the world in which his mysteries took place. The sport of kinds be damned and the murder mysteries that occur within its snooty confines. Parker, though, is no Chandler by far. Even at best, he seems like a beggar wearing clothes he stole from a dead man's closet.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

CONSIDER THIS

Existentialism is when I discover that I'm the private joke that hasn't been shared with me.I think Beckett would appreciate those who are able to pierce through that psychic prophylactic against comprehension and grasp the humor he observed and recorded. I have the idea that Beckett permeated the membrane that separates this reality from the metaphysical one, in Plato's sense of the term (and Wallace Stevens as well with his theories about the Supreme Fiction) and instead of finding Ideal Types as promised, he found an empty room. In the Ideal World, Ideas never changed and neither did their representations in the material plane. Maybe they didn't, but I imagine that the kind of fatalistic assumptions that existentialism brings us too--that we are always free no matter what the limitations upon us are, that we are always free to make a choice, even without arms or legs locked in a cell in a bunker fifty miles under a mountain of Bad Faith--but we soon enough get bored with the certainty that matters in the world, the objects of God's main made visible to us, and we go back to fiction, to poetry, to insanity if need be to imagine new ideas. This world needs to move and we need to believe that there is an agency in this discussion, that we can destroy what God had wrought or create something new and previously unthought of from the raw stuff we find ourselves born into. We want to transform ourselves by transforming the dirt under the fingernails. Smart folks, the cynics, the nags, the braying chorus of told-you-so-ers will inform you that nothing can be created nor destroyed but merely transformed into a different form of energy. So does Plato's Cave endures? Or are we our own Christ and push the boulder away from the cave entrance and walk to to the stream and wash our faces, not fearing the water might flow through the holes in our hands as some of us might fear. It goes on. It is another night when the music stops playing and the chimney smoke as dissipated in a stiff evening breeze. There is only the sound of cats brawling in bushes and shadow-cloaked homeless rummaging through the dumpster. Neither gives much thought to how nothing ever changes even as all alliances come loose and we invent more words, ideas, sentences to put them in. What matters is who owns the bush, who gets the half-eaten sandwich and the carton of soured milk.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

LONESOME OR LOATHSOME ?

Image result for blue and lonesome rolling stones
BLUE AND LONESOME
--The Rolling Stones
Yes, yes, I realize the Rolling Stones started out, under the behest of belated founding member Brian Jones, as a blues band, more or less, with Chicago style as their touchstone." Blue and Lonesome", their new blues tribute album, is, however, awful. Never a good blues singer--technically he's an awful singer, in fact--Mick Jagger's better to refer to as a vocalist, distinct from someone who can truly carry a tune and remain on the pitch. His best vocals are studio-made performances, masterful assemblages of grunts, yowls, mewlings and sundry other bull noises that, in the context of great songs like "Satisfaction", "Shattered", "Start Me Up" or "Driving Too Fast", has allowed him to still sound like a 19-year-old punk after all these decades. it was the perfect foil for the fire-fight guitar cross-rhythms of guitarists Keith R. and Ron W. As a soul man, as a bluesman, however, Jagger truly sounds like a parody of blues singing, too no avail. I realize others will argue that what he does here is an extension of the vocal genius I've already described, but that does not wash. Rock and roll vocals can get by on attitude, but blues, I think, requires vocal color, a bit of range, and a range that can twist the lyrics to emotional suggestion as much as a good guitarist or harmonica player could. Jagger obviously tries to channel Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf among other brilliant blues icons, but his vocal attributes, or lack of them, betray him fiercely.Additionally, Jagger's harmonica work here is weak, goddamned awful in fact. The band had the good sense to bring in Eric Clapton for a couple of tracks to give the session the needed fret-gritting it needed, but why didn't call in an old hand like harmonica genius Sugar Blue to handle the harmonica parts. Jagger's harmonica work wheezes, honks, hits the marks but does nothing memorable once he gets to them. All that said, the band itself cranks it along just fine,what you expect from the Stones, a sturdy, ornery, crackling set of leg-breaking in 4/4 time. They may take a bow. The pity is the band's most famous member is this album's greatest defect.

Friday, November 23, 2018

BILL MAHER : a man who can't step away from the megaphone

Image result for bill maher stan leeThere more pressing matters to argue about in this uncooperative existence, but the recent claptrap comedian and gadfly Bill Maher wrote about the recently departed comic book maven Stan Lee reveals a man who has an opinion on everything, including matters he hasn't, it seems, given much thought to. The short form is that Maher is tired to fans cooing that the comic book writer, co-creator of many of the Marvel comic book heroes who have come to dominate the box office with their movie adaptations, was a genius on a par with Shakespeare, a true literary master of the universe. It's easy enough to deflate those claims with a more level-headed approach to appraising the artistic worth of comics as an art form, but Maher is no centrist on the matter. Cuing up his familiar dumbing-down-of-America riff and in short, order coughs up the equation that Donald Trump is President because someone decided that Comic Books Are Important. I am, of course, increasingly irritated with Maher's smug egalitarianism even if I agree with him on many issues. The slam against Lee wasn't insightful or revealing of anything other than Maher's cheerful willingness to be mean-spirited. He was cruel. I will leave more detailed and historically astute counter-arguments to Maher's claim that superheroes have seduced the American population into believing violence and rugged individualism solves our problems, democratic traditions are damned, to others. On the matter as to whether comic books have made us collectively dumber, there is not much, if any data, to support the assertion. Anecdotedly, I have never met a comic book fan, in my 66 years of life as writer, musician, artist, bookseller, who was dumb, illiterate, or unaware of what was happening in the news. Anecdotedly, I would say the legion of comic book fans I know are a smart bunch of folks. Not everyone is an Einstein or a Gore Vidal or a Susan Sontag, or a Neil Tyson DeGrasse, nor do they have to be. Maher, who ought to know better, denies them their humanity and implicates them in the origins of the "Slow moving coupe" of the Alt-Right merging with the American mainstream. Maher's hot take on the passing of Lee and his cultural legacy is controversy created where none need to have existed. Other matters about Lee need to be discussed, debated, researched, a longer view of his work needs to be done, but equating him with a growing trend toward strongman politics is the rant of a blister brained dumbfuck who spends his life yelling from the bus stop, a man with no bus fare and no direction . 

________________________________________________________________________________

Barry Alfonso:
Maher wouldn't know how to count the change for the bus fare if it dropped into his hand. He is a bronchial punk who has been lingering at the free lunch bar of public opinion for way too long. I remember him saying years ago what a nice pal he found Ann Coulter to be. I am all for trans-ideological comity and all that, but she is an anal wart upon the body politic. Bill and Ann should hang out together behind the Velvet Hammer waiting for the wet laundry to dry by the septic tank.

Friday, November 9, 2018

HAMMERED SHIT


Save your cash on and skip the slow-moving, turgid and criminally inane Thor: The Dark World. It is an improvement over the first Thor film, but there is a lethargy in all the action scenes. Nothing seems crisp or crucial in the physical battles, although there is some good GGI of London smashed to pieces by the invasion of the Dark Elves. Chris Hemsworth as Thor talks like a bad High School drama student who is trying to force his voice into a lower register--he sounds like he's trying to suppress a burp while he speaks--and there is a frown on his face through the film that makes him look as though someone gave him a shot of castor oil. Tom Hiddleston as Loki is inexplicable anyway you look at-- he fluctuates between glee, sorrow, and rage raggedly, scene to scene. Plus he is incapable of not looking like Data from Star Trek: Next Generation. They've thrown a lot of things in the air for this juggling act, and too many things hit the stage they're playing on.our money on the visual laxative otherwise known as Thor: The Dark World. Anthony Hopkins appears rumpled and ready for a nap, while Natalie Portman, consistently the least charismatic actress I can think of, moves through this movie in a variety of self-loathing postures, as though in pain realizing everyone she knows will see her in this expensive, flailing wind-up toy of a film. I think a Thor movie could be entertaining if there was the right cast, director and script, a crew that had a feel of the source material, ie, the Marvel comic book, not the original Norse legend. This is an efficient, professional bit of filmmaking and does provide a moment or two of entertainment, but the cast is so indifferent--either phoning it in or gnawing the scenery--and the plot points so diffuse, distracted and pitifully predictable, in blockbuster terms, that what we have is an expensive, noisy apparatus utterly without charm. What's missing is the grace, energy and, yes, basic good humor and humanity of the original Kirby/Lee comic book tales. Jack Kirby had an extraordinary visual imagination and a capable rendering of his version of Asgaard could have been simply magnificent, magical even. The comic book version of these characters, with and without Kirby, had a verve that seemed to sock you in the face straight from the page. As fine as this movie's production values might be, there never seems a time that the enterprise seems to rise above a very competent reenactment ritual. What they settled for were computerized variations of Shangri La from Lost Horizon. Worse, the make-believe city resembled a cross between Hearst Castle and an M.C.Escher painting. That, combined with the sluggish momentum this movie is barely capable of, is quite enough to make you calculate how much you worked to make the money for the ticket you bought to see something that finally made you feel like a moron for seeing.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

DEEP THOUGHTS

Well, you must stop sometimes so you can appreciate what the senses have given you as you go your way through the world. You must stop in order to write about the need to pursue the seductive logic of never stopping. But you must stop before you go forward, as the brain absorbs only so much; you stop, you breathe, you think, you connect what has happened recently with the narrative of a life already recorded. This engages you with the world, truly, this is where the poetry comes from, not gushing hot lava adjectives and verbs while writing that the world is made more real by moving forward, without apology, without pause or reflection, following the string where ever it leads. But this is not poetry and it is not lyricism. Self-acceptance is one thing, but it seems to me that changing oneself is required in order to maintain a level of sanity that can return you sanity after the battering, high and low and in-between, human existence brings us. We cannot remain stubbornly the same as a means of spiting those who attempt to add us to their particularized set of neurosis; learning how to change is an essential skill. Perhaps “change” is the wrong word, as its been co-opted and poisoned by every fad pop-psychology has heaped upon our mass-mediated culture. More appropriate, more useful, perhaps, would be “grow”. Screw trying to change yourself into an internet meme, our tasks is to remain teachable and to grow into new experience, to learn, to become wiser and more full of the love for the world as well as love for ourselves. Too many of us pay a sorry price for having an excess of one or the other. We can grow into ourselves into the world we find ourselves, as individuals, as citizens, as members of a community. I realize the phrase “To thine own self be true” is a cliché that makes many cringes, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bad way to go. It’s a matter of how we do it. Besides gaining knowledge through experience, we should be able to gather wisdom as well. Or one would think. The writer in those times they stop agitating the gravel and take pause to reflect, meditate, consider the thingness of the world they’ve blazed through a little too quickly, there arises the sense that one forgets that they are a writer, the self-appointed priest of making things happen on the fly; the writing becomes about the world , the people, the places, the things that occupy the same space as you, the same patch of land your visiting. It becomes less about the writer, the seeker of knowledge attempting to gain knowledge through velocity, the impatient explorer more concerned with inflaming their senses rather than being genuinely curious about and teachable within the world. You have to stop, take a breath, create a language, a poetry, a prose style that convinces the reader that they’ve actually encountered something extraordinary in their travels through hill and dale, river and inlet, village and burg, that they’ve actually learned something they didn’t know before. Otherwise, I believe, nothing is revealed because nothing was learned and, despite all manner of ranting and such protests defending one’s unique view, that view is forgotten, and another opportunity is lost to move a reader in ways you might not have expected.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

MARTY BALIN


Image result for marty balinMarty Balin, co-founder, lead singer, and a principal songwriter for the iconic ’60s band Jefferson Airplane died September 27, 2018, at the age of 76. The cause of death hasn’t yet been disclosed. It’s always sad when a musical talent from your prime music listening years passes on, and although natural as it is to reflect upon morosely, I found myself smiling, remembering why I liked him beyond his psychedelic pedigree. During the infamous Altamont Rock Festival of 1969, when the Rolling Stones were convinced to headline a hastily and badly planned “West Coast Woodstock” at a motor speedway, it was obvious from those in the know that the fete was doomed to disaster; the producers had the monumentally bad idea to hire the Hells Angels as security. To wit, when audience members crowded the front of the festival stage during the Jefferson Airplane’s performance, Angels “security” began beating up unfortunate attendees. Seeing this, Balin left his microphone and jumped into the crowd to intervene in the beating. Balin received a beating himself from the hired help. He was knocked unconscious. Nothing about Altamont turned out right, with the death at the hands of the Angels security of a young black man. But my respect for Balin grew immensely. Balin jumped in, man, was my refrain for years when speaking of the unique vocalese of the Airplane’s singing partnership. He stepped in, he stepped up, he took a fist in the face to do the right thing.

Born Martyn Jerel Buchwald on January 30, 1942, of immigrant parents in Cincinnati, Ohio, Balin changed his name in 1962 and did some early recording for Challenge Records. Later, he moved on from pop-rock and became a folkie, leading a folk music foursome called the Town Criers. In time he moved to California’s Bay Area, knocking around as guitarist and folk musician, eventually meeting fellow Jefferson Airplane co-founders Paul Kanter and original lead vocalist Signe Anderson. After some gigging around area clubs and venues, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady, and drummer Skip Spence joined the troupe, and soon afterward they released their 1966 debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. The nascent band earned a growing popular following and later gained national attention in 1967 after Anderson left the band and was replaced by Grace Slick and the release of their second album, the classic Surrealistic Pillow. This was the classic formation that remained intact for their best and most creative period.

Jefferson Airplane was a side of psychedelic rock I found most appealing, being in their short-lived prime a volatile and imaginative forced marriage of folk tradition, jazzy “mystery chords,” Joycean/ Eliot verifying, and bracing harmonies provided by the bulldozing Grace Slick and Balin’s bittersweet tenor. Their albums were a fascinating, eclectic mess, indulgent and snotty and harsh; I would put them, along with the Stooges, MC5, and the Velvet Underground, as stylistic forerunners of the punk rock anti-aesthetic. Balin was the ballast for the band—a balladeer, a genuine folk singer, a romantic who never abandoned his tendency for the oddly effective lyric that emphasized an actual relationship rather than a worldview. He was the sensual, intuitive romantic that balanced Slick’s jagged surrealism and Dadaesque wit. Even as the jarring exponents of what was called “acid rock,” the musical evocation of the hallucinogenic LSD trip intended to expand consciousness and such, Balin’s strongest songs, lyric, disarming, reasonably center in relatable emotion and sentiment, was something of the sane center of a band otherwise committed to the vagaries of extreme experience. A jangling folk rocker with “It’s No Secret,” an able writer of street-action anthems like “Volunteers,” the loneliest of the lonely true hearts in “Coming Back to Me,” or a perplexed consciousness sussing through confounding circumstances with angular hard rock tempos, Balin was an essential presence and creative force in a great but generally unstable band. Both the quality of his songwriting, both alone and as a collaborator, and the sincere, crooning anguish of his vocals was an irreplaceable weave through Jefferson Airplane’s discography between 1966 through 1969: five studio albums and one blistering live set, one of the strongest of any American rock band from the period.

I liked this band up until 1969’s Volunteers album when Paul Kanter’s sci-fi libertarian fantasizes turned J.A. into a plodding monstrosity of ego and half-measured music. Those among the readership who followed the career arc of this band through the ’60s and the ’70s will recall, perhaps stifling a gag reflex, the slew of Jefferson Starship albums that evolved from the original band. It will suffice it to say for this short note that the best thing the Starship ever did was recording and releasing Marty Balin’s vocal on perhaps the best song he ever wrote,“Miracles" from their  1975 album Red Octopus. He glides over the songs unusual-for-a-pop song complexity with a chanteur's confidence; he infuses the moody inflections of the melody with a sufficiently moaning timbre which suggests a rich mesh of responses, everything between agony and ecstasy. Balin turns it into a radiant ode to the act and the sensual philosophy of romantic sex with your partner. It was a refreshing difference of how a male talk of such things.It was the best thing Jefferson Starship ever did, a masterpiece of pop-rock sexuality that rose to canonical heights over the increasing vapidity and knuckleheaded irrelevance. The band, or at least the management and record company, hung their heads in shame all the way to the bank, and it remains, I suppose, the supreme irony of things that a band beginning as Jefferson Airplane, counterculture revolutionaries singing of a society without pretense, class structure, false morality and, by implication, cash, evolved into the Jefferson Starship, a cash cow for corporate interests. So yes, money changes everything. That said, it should be mentioned that the guitar work of Jorma and Jack Cassidy’s basslines were among the best teams of the era. And Balin was a fine musician, singer, and songwriter who might have done better if he had a less dicey means to bring his music to the public.



(This was originally published in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with permission.)